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“Leave No Trace” by Alex Miller

Lily is a flower and a girl’s name, but my Lily was a water moccasin and a grizzly bear sniffing for fresh meat. When I bragged about my outdoorsmanship, Lily saw me for who I was—a city boy playing at hiking in a busted pair of sneakers, bumbling unprepared into the wilderness without food or water, not even something obvious like a PowerBar. Lily said I shouldn’t be alive. She took me camping but first took me to REI. Made me buy a grownup backpack, boots and a jacket rated to withstand blizzards in the alpine tundra. When the clerk rang it up, I wondered how anybody could even afford to go outside. Lily took me up North Bird Mountain. A cold day, and damp, and my legs ached from switchbacks, and I sweated under my expensive jacket and soon was shivering and miserable. Meanwhile Lily radiated delight. Isn’t everything beautiful? She told me she was a red-tailed hawk. She told me she was a mouse in a field, scampering among stalks of dry grass. I’d planned on bringing beer, but Lily advised it was too heavy. Instead of drinking we made conversation. She asked if I had any useful skills for after the collapse of civilization. I told her I could catch fish. With your hands? she asked. No, I said. With a pole. Lily said I was useless. Well, right about then I was kicking myself for leaving behind that six-pack, weight allowance be damned. Lily said she was a rainbow trout spawned in the Hiwassee River. She was a diamondback rattler sleeping in the sun, and one day she bit a man and didn’t feel sorry, even after he died. We passed a clear creek where she had been a salamander and happy and would have remained one forever except she burned so hot she feared she’d become a wildfire. In the afternoon before making camp, I followed her to a waterfall in a grotto that smelled damp like mud and watercress. She stuck her hand in the water despite the cold. Lily was wind and ice. She invited me to touch the water, and when I hesitated she grabbed my hand and held it under. Coldest thing I ever felt. It set my knees buckling and my pale hand aching down in the bones. I guess it’s no surprise me and Lily didn’t last. Irreconcilable differences, and all that. But on chilly evenings I sometimes find myself lingering on the porch, where I’ll light a joint and remember the good times—which I guess was just that night in the tent. Lily was a wildcat and she-wolf and I swear at least part octopus. Whiskers of smoke swoop and twist, and I’ll wonder what Lily is now, wonder if she is the smoke—roiling, drifting higher, out of reach, out of sight, eager to become whatever she will be.

Alex Miller is the author of the novel "White People on Vacation" (Malarkey Books, 2022). His fiction has appeared in Pidgeonholes, Maudlin House and Back Patio. He lives in Denver.

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